Wayne Koonce (BA, ’71) returned to campus on Friday, November 4th to accept his 2022 GGIS Distinguished Alumni Award, at a ceremony hosted by Department Head Prof. Shaowen Wang in the Russell Seminar Room. After receiving the award, Wayne shared his Illinois experience and career journey and took questions from faculty and students on topics including sustainable buildings and urban development. He also had individual and small-group discussions with faculty and students throughout the day and enjoyed a return visit to Geography’s former home in Davenport Hall.

Koonce, an investment banker, has been involved in over $8 billion worth of real estate deals, and credits the U of I and a strong geographic foundation for launching him on a path from a family farm in Illiopolis, Illinois to cities and exotic destinations around the world.

“In many ways, growing up on the farm in central Illinois was magical,” he said, but his greatest passion has always been for the ecology of cities, so he enrolled as a geography major with an emphasis on urban planning upon arriving at the U of I. At that time, there were not many study-abroad opportunities but an LAS associate dean “understood my dreams and how interested I was in the world and history and architecture.” A year of study in Vienna, Austria, changed his life and encouraged him to keep exploring.

“Illinois opens up new worlds to people like me, whose experiences may have been rather limited,” said Koonce. “I had strong academic interest in historical, cultural, and political geography with some focus on the growth and shape of metropolitan areas and have been able to use all of these concepts throughout my career.”

Koonce appreciated the vision and dedication of geography professors who helped him chart his academic and professional journey and has continued to show his gratitude to the department, College of LAS, and campus community ever since – by hosting a Campaign Illinois event, joining the President’s Council, and helping to set up a graduate fellowship fund in honor of a former professor. Koonce and his wife, Harriet Hentges, even established a bequest gift, the Wayne Koonce Endowment for Liberal Arts and Sciences. Koonce also won the 2017 College of LAS Dean’s Quadrangle Award, given to alumni who maintain significant connections with Illinois.

“I have so many fond memories of the department and I’m especially grateful for all the advice, help, and support I got from department head John Thompson and from professors Joseph Russell, John Jakle, and Janice Monk,” Koonce said. “They tirelessly wrote letters of recommendation, reviewed options with me, and gave sound advice as I applied for graduate programs.”

Koonce landed a Danforth Fellowship shortly after graduation, which would fund his graduate studies including an internship in the Bureau of Budget for then-Illinois Governor Dick Ogilvie. He was an intern for only a month before becoming an assistant budget analyst and then, at the age of 20, moving into a more senior position. “It was a heady experience for a young guy,” he said. The experience also ignited an interest in politics, which only intensified when the Danforth Fellowship set him up in the summer of 1972 at the Aspen Institute, a prominent think tank in Colorado where he encountered thought leaders including Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

For the next four years, Koonce attended Harvard University, and after receiving a master’s degree and juris doctor degree in 1976, he moved to Tokyo on a Henry Luce Scholarship. There, he researched the problem of highly polluting industries moving from Japan to Southeast Asia, where environmental controls were less stringent. He also took up Japanese art, immersing himself in Tokyo’s art world through his teacher, a prominent painter and wife of the prime minister’s chief of staff. “I was fascinated with Japan—the transportation issues, the planning issues, and the highly sophisticated train and subway systems,” he said.

wayne and shaowen

A year in Germany soon followed, where he worked in international law. Then the next summer he was off to Switzerland to help renowned political scientist Karl Deutsch with the third edition of his seminal text on international relations. After living so long overseas, Koonce was happy to finally return to the United States, where he took a position with a leading law firm Wilmer, Cutler, and Pickering. But he was there for only four months when he was asked to move to London where they were opening a new office.

Politics continued to beckon, and in 1982 he came back to Illinois to work on policy issues for Adlai Stevenson III, who was in a fierce election campaign against sitting Governor James Thompson. When Stevenson narrowly lost after a recount, New York U.S. Senator Pat Moynihan invited Koonce to become his legislative director. He also did work in Illinois for Gary Hart, a presidential candidate who came out of nowhere to win the 1984 New Hampshire Democratic primary.

The year 1985 was a transition time for Koonce, as he moved out of politics and into real estate acquisitions, first for Peers and Company and then for his own business, Koonce and Company. This was also the year he married Hentges, who worked on corporate responsibility and sustainability issues for Walmart and then the Dutch group Royal Ahold.

After years in politics, Koonce said it was ironic that he came back to his first love at U of I—urban planning. The real estate deals he puts together are high-end projects that draw renowned architects and are at the forefront of urban design and planning. One of his first major deals, in 1988, was for the wealthiest family in Japan, who bought InterContinental Hotels worldwide for $2.3 billion—which was at that time the largest hotel deal ever.

In addition, he has put together deals to buy The Sun-Times building, the Drake Hotel, and Peninsula Hotel in Chicago. Koonce came full circle in his passion for cities, and also for farming. Until recently, he and his wife had owned a large Angus farm in Virginia. “It’s been quite a journey from the farm in Illiopolis,” he said, “and U of I opened up all of these worlds for me.”

This article was originally published in 2017 by the College of LAS and adapted by Matt Cohn.

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